Employee Wellness Programs: Get Fit, Get Rewarded

    Employee Wellness Programs: Get Fit, Get Rewarded

    By S. Caseria

    If you’ve looked at your employer’s benefits plan lately, you’ve likely seen a subset of your total benefits grouped as a “wellness program.” Wellness programs are focused on helping employees live healthier lives through nutrition, disease prevention, and exercise.

    A Wide Range of Offerings

    Wellness plans are offered by about 70 percent of employers today.1 And while the benefits can be as varied as the companies that offer them, programs are generally made up of three components:

    • Screening activities designed to bring awareness of health risks through questionnaires, examinations and tests
    • Lifestyle and disease management to help participants get into better health and control medical issues
    • Health promotion activities that support a healthy lifestyle, like nutritious cafeteria options, stress management and fitness challenges

    Within these regimes, some of the more common plan benefits include smoking cessation and weight loss programs, stress management, preventative health screenings and physical fitness initiatives (including health club memberships and workplace activities).

    Additionally, employee assistance programs help with personal issues like substance abuse, mental health and life changes that can affect job performance. Resources typically include confidential assessments, counseling, treatment and training.

    Some plans also offer financial wellness assistance, a key element of our personal wellbeing, according to Anne Marie Ludovici-Connolly, a nationally recognized employee wellbeing expert, author and consultant for the Segal Group.

    “Financial security can be a preliminary first logical step toward making other life changes since it gives people peace of mind,” she said in an interview. That makes sense, because if you’re struggling to make your mortgage payment or worried about being laid off, your cholesterol count may not be your top concern. Any employer that’s truly concerned about its workforce would be wise to ensure they offer employees job stability and the resources to help cope with financial issues.

    Benefits … for Employers and You

    If financial wellness is paramount to an individual’s health, it’s just as important to a corporation – a stable employee is a productive employee. According to one  benefit study by Health Affairs, a journal of health policy research, wellness programs offer a three-to-one return on investment through reduced medical costs, and similar savings from absenteeism revenue loss.2

    The Harvard Business Review looked at the ROI in a different way; companies with what they defined as “great corporate wellness plans” saw health care costs rise 1-2 percent per year, versus the national average of 7 percent.3

    These numbers show that healthier employees are good for business. But wellness can also be good for an employee’s bottom line. In addition to the actual improvement to one’s life, employees may also receive incentives to participate and to achieve goals.

    Some are on a token level. A RAND study revealed that 84 percent of companies with wellness programs offer incentives such as gift cards, water bottles, T-shirts and gym discounts.

    But a portion of those companies go a little farther in their financial rewards for wellness. Twenty-one percent of companies offer cash rewards for participation, meaning you don’t necessarily have to achieve a goal, just get involved. The research showed that the rewards can be substantial, with $682 the average incentive for achieving a smoking cessation goal, $143 for getting involved in a fitness program and $188 for taking part in weight-loss or anti-obesity activities.4

    “Incentives are key, although research shows that they don’t necessarily change long-term behavior,” said Ludovici-Connolly. “But incentives are the boost that get people motivated.”

    Even if the financial reward only gets employees started, the benefits of the activities seem to keep people engaged. The RAND study reported that plan participants demonstrate “statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvements in exercise frequency, smoking behavior, and weight control … over an observation period of four years.”5

    Ludovici-Connolly added that an organization’s culture can help these benefits carry on. “Senior level and peer support as well as continuous incentives can lead to ‘intrinsic’ motivation, which leads to continuous behavior change,” she said, adding that employers must believe in the benefit programs, and have an active part on employees’ wellness.

    Take the Money and Run. Or Walk Laps. Or do Yoga.

    What benefits do employees take advantage of most?

    “It truly depends on the company and what people need at the time,” Ludovici-Connolly said.

    But if there is one particular area employees should focus on, it’s the financial element, she suggested.

    “If employers offer a ‘debt diet’ plan, take advantage of it,” Ludovici-Connolly said.

    If you can get cash for enrolling in a fitness plan, do that too. If there’s a rebate for the gym membership you’ve already paid for, complete and submit the necessary paperwork. The money has already been budgeted for, so make use of it. Some companies will even offer a cash reward simply for completing a health questionnaire.

    Need one more reason to look for this “free money?” Ludovici-Connolly said that these programs are often cost neutral for employers, “so if an employer has raised your health plan premiums by $200 this year, they may offer that back as an incentive to use the wellness program.” If you don’t use it, you lose it. And you’ll have to pay the higher premium on top of that.

    On the topic of higher premiums, there’s something else employees should know; again from the RAND study: if your employer offers a smoking cessation program and you don’t participate, you may find yourself paying 50 percent more in health premiums compared to smokers who are participating.6

    What to Look for in a Good Wellness Plan

    Every employer offers something different so you should ask your human resource manager what’s available, and use your company’s intranet to find program benefits that work for you. Fortune Magazine consulted several experts to create this list of what makes some wellness plans better than others.7

    • Programs that are practical and accessible
    • A work environment that is health conscious
    • Wellness is integrated into company structure
    • Wellness is linked to existing support programs
    • Health education and screening are offered

    Health, Your Most Valuable Asset

    While your employer’s motives for offering wellness benefits may not be totally altruistic, that shouldn’t stop you from getting as much value from the program as possible. It can be a win-win for all. (VideoTake 5…Your Most Valuable Asset)

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    1 Society for Human Resource Management, “2015 Employee Benefits An Overview of Employee Benefits Offerings in the U.S.,” June 29, 2015

    2 Health Affairs 29, no. 2, “Workplace Wellness Programs Can Generate Savings,” February, 2010

    3 Harvard Business Review, “What Great Corporate Wellness Programs Do,” March 21, 2014

    4 RAND Health, “Workplace Wellness Programs Study,” 2013

    5 RAND Health, “Workplace Wellness Programs Study,” 2013

    6 RAND Health, “Workplace Wellness Programs Study,” 2013

    7 Fortune, “5 hallmarks of successful corporate wellness programs,” April 13, 2015

    The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel.